Canadian filmmakers have never made much of a mark on the cinematic landscape. Even the most intense film buff might struggle to name a notable Canadian picture worth seeing. Thankfully, they can now refer curious would-be cinephiles to Denis Villeneuve’s bold, disturbing “Incendies,” which was recently nominated for Best Foreign Language Film at the Oscars.
After their mother, Nawal Marwan (Lubna Azabal), dies, 20-something twins Jeanne (Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin) and Simon (Maxim Gaudette) are surprised by her last wishes; that they find the father they thought was dead and the brother they never knew existed. As Jeanne sets off on her journey and Simon stubbornly remains at home, the audience also follows Nawal through flashbacks as she negotiates her way through a horrific religious war.
“Incendies” could be a deeply unpleasant film to watch, both because of its often ugly violence and its delight in putting its characters through hell. Villeneuve, who adapted the film from a play, smartly embraces the film’s mystery components to keep things entertaining.
Villeneuve cuts between Jeanne’s and later Simon’s quests and their mother’s journey through a war-torn country, giving the twins slivers of information before unleashing a fresh wave of unpleasantness on their mother. Villenueve’s direction is stylish and packs several extremely powerful moments, including the disturbing opening scene in which a group of child soldiers get their heads shaved as Radiohead’s “You and Whose Army?” blares over the soundtrack.
Villeneuve also demonstrates impressive restraint for most of the film, infusing the proceedings with an indelible sense of impending doom before letting tensions occasionally boil over into an act of unspeakable, brutal violence.
An even bigger asset to the film than Villeneuve is Lubna Azabal’s stunning performance as Nawal. Taking the character across several decades, Azabal is simply astonishing, selling Nawal’s transformation from an idealistic college student to a cold-blooded killer to war-ravaged old woman effortlessly. The film’s makeup is also worth mentioning, as even the smallest characters are realistically aged as the film skips between eras.
“Incendies” may have been too brutal to win this year’s Best Foreign Language Oscar, but it remains a powerful film. Both entertaining and sobering in its effective portrayal of a family dealing with the consequences of war decades later. Thanks to Villeneuve’s confident storytelling and a disturbing ending that will haunt you long after the credits roll, “Incendies” is an unshakable, masterful film.